Robert Barnett is Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia and the author most recently of–ÊLhasa: Streets with Memories and co-editor with Ronald Schwartz of Tibetan Modernities: Notes from the Field on Cultural and Social Change. (May 2008)
China’s Vice-President Xi Xinping’s speech in Lhasa marking ‘the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Tibet’ was broadcast live on Chinese state television, an exceptional event and an indication of its national importance. Watching Xi deliver it gives a much more complex impression both of him and of China: the visual information largely conveys the opposite of Xi’s words.
The Dalai Lama’s recent announcement of his planned retirement was not well received by China’s Foreign Ministry, whose spokeswoman described it as an attempt “to deceive the international community.” Many assumed this to be a reference to the fact that even after the Tibetan leader gives up his official position within the exile Tibetan administration, he will continue to travel, give speeches, and be a symbolic leader to Tibetans, a source of considerable frustration for Beijing. But Chinese officials also appear to be worried about something rather more obscure: a little-known seventeenth-century precedent in which the retirement of a Dalai Lama concealed a convoluted plot to prevent China from choosing his successor.
For this is not the first time that the Dalai Lama of Tibet has issued a decree announcing that a younger, largely unknown man is to take over as the political leader of the Tibetan people. It happened before—in 1679. To explain why this detail of history matters to the Chinese government requires a little background.
Since President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama on February 18, the details of the closely-watched encounter have been carefully parsed, from the history of the room in which the two men met (the White House Map Room, an apparent indicator that a meeting is private, yet not personal) to the absence of the First Lady (making the meeting more official), and the serving of tea (making it less formal). Even the garbage bags that the Dalai Lama passed on his exit (seen as either incompetence by White House staff or a veiled message to Beijing) and the Dalai Lama’s flip-flops (seen as a metaphor for his policies or a rebuttal to Rupert Murdoch’s claim that the Tibetan leader wears Gucci shoes) were debated.
Every so often, between the time a book leaves its publisher and the time it reaches its readers, events occur that change the ways it can be read. Such is the case with Pico Iyer’s account of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet. The eruption of major …